An Interview with Saito Hitohira Sensei
A Close encounter with Iwama’s Aikido
We’ve been going around interviewing experienced martial art teachers for a while now. Mr. Saito Hitohira, who actually knew Morihei Ueshiba when he was a kid and devoted to Aikido from an early age, is still living in Iwama, right next to the Aiki Jinja. When we had the opportunity to get an interview with him, we did not hesitate, and here is how it all happened.
Saito Hitohira, the founder of the Iwama Shinshin Aiki Shurenkai
During the Golden Week, we had the opportunity to drive up to the small village of Iwama to meet Mr. Saitō Hitohira in person, thank to Mr. Sobue of the Nihon Kobudō Shinkōkai [日本古武道振興会] who introduced us, and to Mr. Olivier Eberhardt who kindly acted as our intermediary with Mr. Saitō to arrange the meeting and the conditions of the interview.
For those who don’t know him by name, Mr. Saitō Hitohira [斎藤 仁弘] is the son of one of Morihei Ueshiba’s direct disciples, Mr. Saitō Morihiro [斉藤 守弘]. He’s also the founder of the Iwama Shin-Shin Aiki Shūren-kai [岩間神信合氣修練会], an independent organization famous for its influence both in Japan and overseas.
One of the particularities of that organization is that it still encourages the traditional “Uchi-Deshi” system, Mr. Saitō welcoming practitioners from around the world to his home throughout the year. The disciples stay in a building next to Mr. Saitō’s own house, living, eating and sleeping in the lower floors under one of the dojos.
Visiting the place, Iwama & the Tanrenkan Dojo
They welcomed us warmly when we arrived and showed us around the house. The smaller dojo is right above the dormitory, which is itself above the kitchen and dining room, in a building facing the Aiki Jinja, right across the street. The dojo itself is is mostly used for rainy days or for free training, sometimes also for ceremonies.
Once we had seen the house, we moved to the greater dojo to make the necessary preparations and wait for Mr. Saitō. The Deshi took care of the cleaning and helped us settling our gear in the main dojo while describing their daily life. The Iwama branch of Aikido giving a significant place to the Shintō religion, a dojo is still a sacred place that cannot be violated. With our many cameras, lights and heavy equipment, we felt a little like intruding. However, we could also feel comfortable thank to the presence of the current Uchi-Deshi. We had an interesting chat with them while we were getting ready, and I was glad to find a former fellow Kendoka in one of them, Nicolas, with whom I share that passion. My two colleagues took advantage of that time to go see the outdoor training ground in the mountain nearby, where the disciples train with weapons in the morning.
And then the Master, Saito Hitohira Sensei, arrived…
Mr. Saitō finally came around 5 p.m. to have time for the interview before the evening lesson, or so we thought. In truth, Mr. Saitō does not open up easily to the first stranger knocking at his door, simply because they drove all the way up to the small town of Iwama. Never hope to meet the Sensei without a proper recommendation from someone close to him; he would not see you. Faithful to some remnants of the ancient traditions of Budo, he needs to feel his opponent before he allows him to come closer for a shot at his privacy. We were on his ground, so we had to follow his pace and he threw us off balance a few times in the conversation, seemingly testing our resolution and our reactions. For a long while, we honestly feared that this informal discussion that was stretching out would be all we would be able to get from him. The most frustrating aspect of it was that it was utterly interesting and revealing, while we were not actually able to set up our equipment to record it properly, as we were just caught up in the flow and did not dare to interrupt the talking master. So we just opened our ears and listened, which is probably all he wanted from us at that point.
When we had the occasion, we could however offer him the special Bokken, made of rich Tsubaki (Camellia) by Master Nidome Yoshiaki, that we brought with us as a present. It had been carefully engraved by Jordy earlier. Being a kind of craftsman himself, he showed some genuine interest at the work once Jordy explained its origin, and we were finally authorized to stay for the evening lesson. We filmed the whole lesson as discreetly as possible. In the end, when we were about to just pack and go, Mr. Saitō abruptly gave us his agreement for the formal interview. We had just a few minutes to settle again, but we did it. You know the result, which was recently published in our YouTube channel. We really wish we could have given you a deeper insight into the master’s world, but he obviously values his privacy, and if you want to know him, you have no other choice but to enlist as one of his regular disciples and practice the Aikido of Iwama with him. After all, that’s only logical and coherent with the master’s spirit, as his own disciples would probably agree, although we do not give up hope of getting other opportunities to approach Mr. Saitō again and capture more of his practical and spiritual teaching on tape.
A very warm and friendly conclusion
As for the Uchi-Deshi in residence at the moment of the interview, they were very friendly and extended their hospitality to the diner that Nicolas had prepared, which they were kind enough to share with three more mouths, although we had not practiced with them for two hours during the evening. We had a very nice chat, made even easier and lively by the fact that almost all of them spoke French.
That warm atmosphere was the best way to conclude the day on a lighter, relaxing mode, and we are still very grateful for the time everybody spent to make us feel welcome at Iwama. Olivier Eberhardt and Victor Detrez were particularly helpful, and it’s with regret that we shook hands to get back to Tokyo, leaving early enough to allow them some sleep before the next morning of hard training. We wish we can come again for more!
Article by Jean-François Rauch,
General Manager @Seido Co., Ltd.